Unfair

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

60 years.

That’s a long time.

Basically double my life.

It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive. 

However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.

But here we are!

And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.

Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.

A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!

We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.

However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.

In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.

I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.

60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.

But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.

That world is long gone.

Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.

The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.

Listen: There’s a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector. 

The tax collector is a legal crook who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.

They both show up for worship. The good faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the tax-collector and the tax collector asks for God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.

Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?

It’s all wrong, right?

This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair. 

Grace is completely unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”

Do you see what that means? It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead. 

And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.

We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.

And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough. 

And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!

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We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most. 

We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.

And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling. 

God is unfair – It’s true. 

But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.

Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?

Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.

Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews. 

It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church. 

The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector. 

You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son. 

That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death. 

In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen. 

Prisoners of Hope

Zechariah 9.9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

 

People of Cokesbury Church: the time has come to rejoice! And I don’t mean the easy-going, carefree, yeah we’re happy kind of joy, but jumping on the pews, putting your hands in the air, shouting to the Lord kind of joy. Glory glory glory!

Behold! Our king comes to us, he is triumphant and mighty and victorious. He comes humbly on the back of a donkey. He will destroy the tanks of armies and the defenses of countries. The missiles and the guns and weapons will be obliterated and peace will reign. Our donkey-riding king will rule from east to west and over the whole earth.

We’ve got reason to celebrate! Our king frees us from the waterless pit of our despair and depression. We prisoners of hope have been delivered.

Or maybe, we don’t feel like celebrating. Perhaps our lives don’t match up with the glory described by Zechariah. Maybe the world is a little too broken for peace to rain down like waters. Perhaps we don’t feel like dancing and shouting because we are stuck in a pit; a pit of anger or bitterness or fear or shame or loneliness.

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There was a man who was walking down the street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and after struggling for a time he began to cry out for help.

A doctor was passing by along the road and he looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment while stroking the stethoscope around his neck, and then he reached into his pocket, wrote a prescription, dropped it into the hole, and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Hey Reverend! I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me out?” The pastor very slowly and deliberately put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next a sweet older woman from the local church came up to the edge of the hole and the man yelled, “Excuse me! Please help me out of here.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “It’s me, I’m stuck in the hole, can you help me out?” To which the friend jumped right down into the hole. The man said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Today I am forever hearing about how we need to get others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord in Savior. As if people are wandering around aimlessly looking for something to give meaning to their lives, and so long as they open up their hearts Jesus will be there waiting for them.

The problem with all of that is the fact that Jesus is the king who comes to us, not the other way around. We often get trapped in the pit of believing that we’ve got to go looking for Jesus when he’s the one looking for us.

Our Lord is the one who finds us wandering around the pit of our sorrow and jumps in to show us the way out. Jumping into the pit, after all, is the great story of scripture. God saw what God had made in Genesis and jumped down into the Garden to make humanity in the divine image. God saw Jacob struggling with his relationships and identity and jumped down to wrestle with him by the banks of the river. God saw the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and jumped down to call Moses from the burning bush. God saw the directionless plight of the people and jumped down to anoint David to rule as king. God saw the brokenness of the world and jumped down to take on flesh in the form of a baby born in a manger.

Jesus is the king who jumps down into the pit of our existence and offers us hope.

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I’ve only been here a short while, but I’ve already seen signs of hope in this church and in this community. Complete strangers in my neighborhood have introduced themselves simply because I’m new, employees at particular businesses have gone above and beyond to be kind and welcoming, a certain someone at the church even gave my wife a bouquet of roses last week.

And from where I stand this morning I see hope. I see individuals whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. I don’t even know many of your names but I know God has acted in your lives, I know that God has delivered you from the pit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

From where I stand I see a church not built on demographics and like-mindedness. I don’t see a church consumed by consumption and driven by desire. I don’t see a church fixated on financial matter or obsessed with objectives.

I see a church of different opinions but similar love. I see a church of faith and fellowship. I see a church of love and hope.

This is a church with prisoners of hope.

We are captivated more by the optimism of “what if” than the pessimism of “it’s too late.” We are held in bondage to the belief that we are more than the mistakes of the past, more that the pain of the present, and more than the unknown of the future. We are prisoners of hope.

And our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who finds us in the pit and shows us the way out. To be clear: the way out is a way out. It’s not a simple affirmation or secret sentence that fixes everything. Jesus invites us to follow him on the way that leads to life.

The church, as the body of Christ, as the gathering of disciples on the Way, is not a building or a program or an institution. It is neither stuck nor static. The church is a living, breathing, and moving thing.

Institutions care about maintaining the institution, keeping the doors open from week to week, working to keep it working like the past. Movements, however, care about the people, about keeping them from falling into pits of despair and jumping in when someone falls in regardless.

We move on the way out of the pit by following our king. And our king is not like worldly leaders. Our king doesn’t live in a white house or control the gathering of nations. He’s not waking up with Wall Street or guiding troops into battle. Our king comes to us humble on a donkey.

Christ is victorious against the powers of this world, the powers of nations and economics and militaristic might. And even more Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemy, death. But this doesn’t mean that death no longer stings, it does. Without the sting of death there would be no need for hope.

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And we are prisoners of that hope. We look out at this broken and shattered world around us as an opportunity to be put back together. We don’t limit our vision of the man on the corner to his economic situation, we don’t see the young teen loitering as a criminal, we don’t see the loud neighbors as a threat to our security. We are prisoners of hope, we believe in the goodness of all people even when they try to prove the contrary.

This was my first full week at the church and I was wrong about what to expect. I figured that you all knew that I would be overwhelmed by having to unpack my office and adjust to a new community. I assumed that you all would leave me alone for a couple weeks until I got settled. But you all just kept showing up everyday as if I was your pastor.

And you’ve had your questions and I tried to field them as best as I could. I listened to your thoughts and reflections. But if you came by the office this week you know that I won’t let you leave without asking a question of my own: Why Cokesbury Church?

There is a plethora of churches in the Woodbridge community, churches of all shapes and sizes and worship styles. So of all the churches here in this place, why do you choose to gather at this place?

“I’ve been going here as long as I can remember…”

            “The people are just so friendly…”

            “Someone signed me up for the Flea Market and I’ve been coming ever since.”

I’ve enjoyed hearing the answers because they’ve provided a slice of the identity of this place, but one particular answer has really stuck with me.

I won’t say who it was, but someone from this church came by this week and I asked him or her why he or she came to this church. The person thought about it for a good amount of time before answering. “I was lost and Jesus found me in this place.”

Notice: the answer wasn’t I found Jesus here, but that Jesus found me in this place.

All of us have been lost at one point or another. We have fallen into pits that we simply could not escape on our own. We’ve been burdened by financial fear, relationship woes, or employment uncertainty. We’ve felt suffocated by limited direction, unending loneliness, or deep despair. We’ve been bullied, belittled, or berated. But Jesus found us and guided us out.

Thanks be to God that we are shackled as prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God that the Lord has delivered us from a faulty and limited vision of what can be. Thanks be to God that the Lord made a way where there was no way.

The promise of our hope, the hope that we are held captive by, is the restoration of all people and of all things. There is victory in Jesus, victory over the powers and the principalities bent on holding us down, victory over the steeps walls that feel inescapable, even victory over the chains of death.

I don’t know what most of you are going through right now. I don’t know what’s keeping you awake at night, what’s driving you crazy whenever you turn on the television, what causes your fists to clench up whenever you hear it. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, what you’re missing, or what you need. I don’t know where you’ve been, where you are, or where you’re going.

But I do know that Jesus does not leave us abandoned. Jesus jumps down into the miry bog of our lives and says, “Follow me, I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.” Amen.

On This Generation

But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I was left to record by myself as half of the team from Crackers & Grape Juice were moving to new appointments in the United Methodist Church and we couldn’t get our act together. It is easily our worst episode because we thrive on dialogues and not monologues, so have mercy. The readings include Genesis 24, Zechariah 9, Romans 7, and Matthew 11. If you want to learn more about worshipping the Lord in marriage, humility in leadership, sin, and our selfish generation you can check out the episode here: Like Children In The Marketplace.

As always, if you enjoy the podcast please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, it helps us and it helps others discover the podcast. You can find out more about both of our podcasts at our website.

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On Sitting At The Reject Table – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Luke 14.1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friend or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

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Throughout the gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven. What does it take to get in? Who will be there? When will it happen?

And whenever Jesus is asked about the kingdom of heaven, do you know what he compares it to most often? A wedding feast.

I love weddings. I love getting to spend time with a couple as their special day gets closer and closer. I love working with families in terms of making the wedding ceremony as special and faithful as possible. I love being invited into this profoundly holy moment at the altar of marriage and bringing two people into an everlasting covenant. But more than all of that, I love weddings because they are as close as we can get to heaven on earth.

During the months leading up to a wedding, while I’m working on pre-marital counseling and the homily and the order of worship, the couple has a lot of work to do as well. They have to procure a reception location, taste test the hors d’oeuvres and the main course, and find the perfect DJ. But perhaps the most difficult and taxing requirements prior to the wedding are the guest list and the seating arrangements.

Nearly every couple I have married has struggled with who to invite and where to seat them. Does that uncle that no one has seen in years warrant an invitation? And what about your cousin’s ex-wife? Maybe we should just send her an invitation to be kind, but if she shows up where can we put her? And where in the world are we going to put the pastor and his wife?

At one wedding, I rushed through the rehearsal under the blistering sun and everyone was remarkably thankful when I stopped talking. Because the wedding was out of town, we were invited to the rehearsal dinner and upon arrival we did not know where to sit. There was clearly an area for the bridal party, so we avoided that table and decided to just sit at a table in the middle of the room. Like an awkward moment in a middle school cafeteria, we waited to see who would sit next to us, but as family members and friends entered the room, the father of the groom stood up to make a speech. He welcomed everyone and thanked the room for supporting his son and soon to be daughter-in-law, and then he pointed over at me. He said, “Now everyone, this is my pastor and the woman sitting next to him is his wife. So all you young men, you need to stay away from her tonight. Because Taylor has the power to send you to heaven, or to hell.” The room erupted in laughter at the joke, and it was pretty funny, but no one, and I mean no one, sat next to us for a long time.

Jesus was once invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees and was being watched closely. When he arrived he noticed how particular people chose to sit in places of honor and he used the moment to teach about the kingdom of God. “When you get an invitation to a wedding, do not sit in the places of respect and honor. Someone might come up to you who is more distinguished and important and they will take your place. You will then have to disgracefully move to the reject table. Instead go and sit at the reject table from the beginning, so that when the host comes by he may call you to a grander table. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There is always a strange moment at wedding receptions when all the guests stand in line at a poster or some other Pinterestly designed labeling system for where each of us will be sitting. At another wedding, after preaching and leading the ceremony, we got in line with everyone else to find our names and our corresponding table. As my eyes went down the list, I knew that we literally knew no one at the wedding (except the bride and groom) and I wasn’t hoping for anything special. But when my eyes finally made it to the end of the list, I knew that we were definitely assigned to the reject table.

You know the one, the table where you send the odds and ends, that strange second cousin that you had to invite and you hope he doesn’t get too rowdy, the piano teacher from a decade ago, the weird friend your mother insisted on inviting but who always drove you utterly crazy. That table.

When we made our way to the back of the room, it only took one glance to confirm our suspicions that we were at the reject table because no one was talking and none of the people knew each other. At every other table in the reception area conversations were flowing and laughter was breaking out, but at the reject table it was silent.

In the silence you could almost sense the recognition of our reject status, but the nail on the coffin was when the pastor and his wife pulled out their chairs and sat down. At a wedding, if I sit at your table, you are part of the rejects.

At first we just further perpetuated the silence by sitting there awkwardly fumbling with our cell phones and such, until I decided to break the ice and compliment the camouflage koozie that was keeping a beer cold in the hand of who I can only imagine was a distant cousin. I said something stupid like, “Man, I could barely tell you were even drinking a beer.” At first he didn’t respond, either because the joke wasn’t funny, or because he was unsure of how to speak to a pastor about beer. But when Lindsey laughed at my foolish attempt to be funny, the whole table seemed to take a collective breath and relax.

From that first, albeit strange, compliment a conversation began to percolate and eventually spilled out over the whole table. Within ten minutes we were probably the rowdiest table in the entire room and were regularly being shushed by other guests while the speeches were being made. We didn’t care that we couldn’t see the bride and groom at their table in the front, we didn’t care that we were the very last table to be called to go through the buffet line, we didn’t care that we were the misfits at the reject table. Instead, we were just happy to be there.

From the humility of the reject table we were exalted to the joy of the wedding celebration.

Jesus spoke to the people gathered together to teach them about the virtues of humility. And in telling the parable of the wedding banquet he was not just assigning them to be humble at weddings, but in all aspects of life. To live the kind of selfish and exalted life of the best table is to forget that we depend on God. It is to believe that we are in control of our lives and that we have the power to save ourselves. It is a fundamental lack of trust that the Lord will provide.

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Humility, on the other hand, is an unselfish way of living while depending on the Lord. It is to believe that our lives are not our own and that only God has the power to save us. It is a fundamental trust in the Lord’s ability to provide.

And Jesus does not leave it at that. He pushes the gathered body even further. Whenever you’re invited somewhere, live humbly. And whenever you are the host, do not invite people with the expectation that they will provide the same courtesy. Do not invite your family, and your neighbors, or your rich friends assuming they will do the same. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people you would otherwise ignore. And you will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay you.

This is a tough commandment for all soon to be married couples. Most of them would never dream of omitting an invitation to family members, and friends, and rich relatives who give the best wedding gifts. They would never dream of inviting strangers and outcasts and rejects to their wedding feast and celebration.

But the marriage of Christ with Christ’s church is a wedding celebration that all of us have been invited to. We are here in the midst of worship: the wedding of God with God’s people, and none of us should have been invited. We can never repay the kindness of God’s invitation, we are unworthy of sitting in these pews, we fail to be obedient to the kind of love that we experience here. And yet we are invited. And frankly, we are all sitting at the reject table.

Jesus Christ invites us to this place to celebrate the great victory over death, the resurrection of glory, and the reconciliation of all things. And that’s different than just being included. Many churches love to claim and proclaim their inclusiveness. Inclusive has become such a buzzword in Christianity that you will find it on nearly every church website and every church bulletin you come across. We so desperately want to appear welcoming and inclusive with the hope that it will draw people into our wedding celebration called the church.

But being inclusive is lazy. Because being inclusive does not require us to do anything but sit here, stare at the doors, and hope people will show up.

            Jesus did not lead an inclusive ministry.

            What Jesus led was a ministry of invitation.

Much like being invited to a modern wedding celebration, Jesus actively went out seeking others to draw them into the party. He met them where they were and invited them to join him on the way that leads to life. His ministry was about breaking down the labels and constructs that people were isolated into, and gathering all of the so called rejects together to celebrate the glory of God.

Our Lord invites all without expectation and without assumption. God Almighty knows our sin and our failures and still sees potential. The Lord meets us where we are through the words of our worship and through our friendships. The great story of scripture, from this passage in Luke to the entire narrative, is not about God waiting for us to show up, but God’s great work to find and transform us.

Sitting at the reject table comes at a cost. It means being surrounded by people we do not know, people we probably don’t agree with, and people who might drive us crazy. It requires a tremendous amount of humility and trust and faith. But it’s also the way we got invited to this party. Amen.

 

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What Are You Wearing?

Colossians 3.12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to be one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Worshipping so close to Christmas Day is a challenge. Christmas Eve: I love it. The way families come out, the perfect color-coordinated outfits, and we get a ton of people who never come to church. But the crowd on the Sunday after Christmas, you all, you make it tough. You are the real deal. You are the ones who love the light of Christmas Eve but recognize that you need the companionship of other Christians to hold you accountable in between Christmas Eve and Easter. You expect to hear uplifting sermons on Christmas Eve, but you also want to hear about the challenges of living a faithful life. You don’t want the watered-down stuff. You want the authentic discipleship.

Francis Asbury, depicted in this stained glass window to my right, also felt the challenge of preaching on this side of Christmas. In his journal entry from Christmas day in 1788, while making his way through the wilds of Virginia, he wrote: “I preached in the open house at Fairfield on Isaiah 9.6. I felt warm in speaking; but there was an offensive smell of rum among the people.”

From up here in the pulpit I certainly can’t smell rum on your breath, but I can smell all the Christmas food filling up all your Tupperware in the fridge, the ripped wrapping paper stuffed in trash bags, and all of the new clothes and gifts you received. Friends, you stink of Christmas.

Worshipping so close to Christmas day is a challenge. While we are still flying high on all the gifts we opened and gave, while we are admiring all the new clothes we get to wear, God still call us together to hear the Word.

One of my good friends and preaching colleagues is a man by the name of Jason Micheli. He served as a mentor for my faith while I was growing up, and even presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding. Years ago he wanted to preach a sermon that involved a number of props up by the altar. The church had three services on Sunday morning so he would have to preach it three times in a row. The sermon had to do with the fact that all people are invited to feast at God’s communion table, so Jason had set up a variety of different looking dining room chairs around the altar. The point being that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you look like, you are invited.

However, during the sermon, Jason wanted to lift up specific chairs and move them around the altar to get the message to really sink in. At the 8:30am service, while wearing his long white robe and carrying a chair up the steps, he stepped on the front part of his robe and nearly fell straight on his face in front of the whole congregation.

For the 9:30 and 11 o’clock services he made the decision to ditch the robe for fear of actually falling and making a fool of himself during the sermon. So during the final two services he said the same words, lifted the same chairs, made the same points, but did so without a robe.

Like all pastors, Jason heard the kind of generic compliments and critiques that are often expressed in the narthex following worship. “Good sermon” or “You gave us a lot to think about” or “Nice weather today.” But none of the comments prepared him for what happened next.

Over the following days and weeks, Jason received a considerable number of anonymous complaints from church members about the fact that he did not wear a robe during worship. He wasn’t trying to make some point, or go contemporary, or purposely upset people. He just didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. But instead of going to him directly to express their opinion, anonymous notes were left under his door, members went to lay-leaders with their frustrations, and some even bypassed the local church and went straight to the bishop to complain. The situation became so intense so fast that Jason actually received a phone call from the bishop about the fact that he was not wearing a robe in church.

Want to know a secret? God’s doesn’t care what we wear to church.

God couldn’t care less about what we have adorned on ourselves when we gather in this place. So long as we are wearing something, God is content. Yet, we put so much emphasis on the clothing and appearance of one another.

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On Christmas Eve, mere days ago, a time when the church is filled to the brim, I received more comments about the Christmas colored pants I was wearing than anything else. Before and after the service that’s what I heard about.

And it’s not isolated to Christmas Eve. Week after week I overhear seemingly innocent comments from some of you, “Can you believe what she wore to church this week?” or “How can she let him out of the house looking like that?” And two years ago, when I was invited to preach at Central UMC during Lent I wore a pair of Carhart Coveralls in the pulpit. To this day I still run into people in Staunton who remember what I wore far more than what I said. And if I’m honest, I judge on outward appearance as well. Whenever I’m driving through our town, or even when I’m up here in the pulpit, I catch myself making judgments about how other people look.

How strange that we judge on outward appearance, while God cares about the content of our character.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about how to dress properly. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint about someone else, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This Christian work regarding our behavioral and spiritual clothing is tough. We are called to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be bound to one another. This kind of work and effort is not for the faint of heart. This passage is not advice on how to avoid conflict. This passage is not telling us to put on a happy face and smile. This passage is not Paul’s version of accentuate the positive.

This text is about what to do when the real emotional brawls break out in our lives.

When the earliest Christians were baptized, they were told to strip off their clothes before entering the baptismal waters, and then were given new clothes in their new life. The clothes themselves were nothing special, but the whole act was to signify an entirely new way of being and relating to others.

When they stepped foot out of the water they were making a covenant to be clothed with the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They embarked on the difficult practice of bearing with one another and the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. They started on a path on striving to live like Jesus in the world.

God does not care about what we wear to church, but is instead concerned with the way we dress our souls.

We can wear all the right Christian clothes, we can wear clergy collars or robes, we can adorn ourselves with shirts that came from a mission trip, or we can wear the biggest crosses you’ve ever seen around our necks, but until we are clothed with the behavior and compassion of Jesus, all the clothes remain meaningless.

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To be well dressed with Christ is to live in harmony with others. Not just letting other people get away with their behavior and smiling absent-mindedly in response. Not just letting frustrations percolate for years. Not just ignoring people who are different than us.

To be well dressed with Christ is to actually forgive others, actually live our lives with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To be well dressed with Christ is to be clothed with love.

The days after Christmas are always interesting. Worshipping so close to Christmas is obviously a challenge and exemplifies the depth of discipleship. But in our day-to-day lives, the days following Christmas can bring out the worst in us. The joy of presents can be replaced with thoughts of the other things we wanted. The excitement of the family getting together can be replaced with the old arguments and fights. The hope of a baby born in a manger to save the world can be replaced with the scream and tears of our children coming down from a sugar-rush.

Yet, here we are. In the shadow of Christmas trees we gather to remember the light that shines in the darkness. While people rejoice with their new material gifts and possessions we give thanks for the gift of Christ that endures forever. As the marketed desires of the world turn to the next big holiday, we remember that every day is a gift.

We are challenged by the words of Paul today. Paul calls us to act, speak, and behave like Christ. While the world spins and focuses elsewhere, we are pushed to live like the baby born in the manger.

When we wake up every morning, if we do so with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience we will be living according to the ways of the one born in Bethlehem, the one who walked and talked in Galilee, hung on a cross for you and me, and rose three days later magnificently. Amen.

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
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Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

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The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Devotional – Job 38.4

Devotional:

Job 38.4

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
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The grains of sand fell through my hand while I was sitting on the beach. My Boy Scout troop had set up camp the night before and a few of us had woken up to catch the sunrise. We could hear our fellow scouts still rustling in the warmth of their sleeping bags, but we were content to sit in the sand and listen to the water.

The boy next to me was absent-mindedly running his fingers through the sand when he looked up and said to no one in particular: “How many grains of sand are in my hand? And in this little spot where I’m sitting, how many grains of sand could there possibly be? Do we even have a number to count that high? And what about all the beaches in the world… and all the sand under the oceans… all those grains of sand… And yet, there are more stars in the sky at night than there are grains of sand on the whole earth…”

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The rest of us sat there in amazement at such a simple and profound reflection and immediately felt tiny and insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. If we felt like the world revolved around us, we were all changed by our friends’ comment, and I have never forgotten the way it made me feel.

After Job has been through all his trials and tribulations, after Job challenges the Lord, God finally answers Job by saying: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” As if Job had heard our discussion about the grains of sand, he was immediately put in his place in relation to God. Instead of believing that he was the center of the universe, Job was humbled by God’s declaration.

Sometimes it is good for us to be humbled. After a particular season of life where we believe that people should worship the ground we walk on, we do well to be knocked down a peg or two. It can be incredibly life giving to realize that we are no greater than anyone else. And it can do wonders to remember what we are in the grand scheme of things: a grain of sand. Because when we remember our place, our eyes can be opened to the people around us instead of only focusing on ourselves.

This week let us remember to not think too highly of ourselves. If we catch ourselves deep in the clutches of vanity and vainglory let us remember the story of the grains of sand, let us remember God’s declaration to Job, and let us remember to be humble.

 

Devotional – 1 Peter 5.6

Devotional:

1 Peter 5.6

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 

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I got the phone call on Thursday afternoon letting me know that Mrs. Betty Lancaster had passed away. Sitting on my couch at the parsonage I realized that I have been at St. John’s for nearly a year and this phone call meant that I was going to preside over my first funeral. I got to the Lancaster’s room at Brightview Baldwin Park as quickly as I could and I sat with the grieving family as they accepted the fact that Betty was gone.

Betty Lancaster

Betty Lancaster

Over the weekend I met with the family on different occasions learning more about the kind of life Betty lived in order that I might do justice to her life during the funeral service on Monday afternoon. The family shared with me particular stories about her life; her love to travel, her expertise in the kitchen, and her dedication to instilling important family values. I heard about how she and Ray met on a Greyhound bus on their way to Radford/Blacksburg, and how their marriage of 63 years began in a service station here in Staunton when a clerk from the court met with them to preside over their martial vows.

I made phone calls to a few of Betty’s friends that still live in the community who confirmed the family’s belief that she was one incredible woman, ready to do whatever it took for others. The more I learned about her life, the more I wished I had been able to spend more time with her myself. 

But the one thing that stuck out among all the other details was a simple comment that Ray made as soon as I made it to his room after Betty died. Sitting in his chair, barely looking up from his lap, he softly said, “To us, Betty was always a star, but she never went in for all the glitz and the glamour.

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Humility is a lost art in our current culture. With the need and the drive to outshine everyone else (whether for employment, college applications, or just selfish desire) we no longer appreciate the importance of remaining modest. Life, at times, seems like one giant competition where we have to make sure that we come in first place. However, the kingdom of God is not like the world we live in. Instead of cutthroat competition dominating everything we do, we are called to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt us in due time. In life we will have opportunities to shine for God, but we must remember that when we do our best, we do so for the kingdom of God and not ourselves.

The call of discipleship today is to live like Betty Lancaster did, which is to say we are called to live like Christ did; ready to listen, prepared to love, and humble in all that we do.

On Real Religion – Sermon on Micah 6.1-8

Micah 6.1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Pastor, preacher, reverend; titles that I’m still not used to. After only having served this church for seven months, it never ceases to amaze me how many people in the community already identify me through my vocation. I will be sitting at the Bistro downtown ready to order dinner with Lindsey when the waitress begins by asking, “What can I get for you reverend?” Or when I’m sitting behind my computer at Coffee On The Corner my coffee is accompanied with a “here you go preacher.”

Its my own fault really. I love to tell people what I do. Whenever I meet someone new in town, I’m always eager to share with them my excitement at having been appointed to St. John’s.

This past week, I was visiting one of my favorite shops downtown (that will remain nameless) when I was greeted with the familiar title: Pastor. The owner and I have a fairly decent relationship and our conversation flows smoothly whenever we’re together. As he was ringing me up, we exchanged the regular pleasantries, talking about the cold weather and other such things, until he asked me about the church. I told him about how remarkably forgiving many of the congregants are regarding my sermons, and how thankful I am for their willingness to join me in this adventure we call “church.” Thats when the conversation got serious.

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying it,” He said, “But church is just not the thing for me.”

Aside: I almost never ask anyone about church, and yet, people always bring up their attendance, or lack their of, in conversations.

By his tone and inflection, it was clear that he wanted to say more about the subject, so I inquired as to why church is not the thing for him.

“I used to go all the time,” he began. “I’ve popped around between different denominations, I was even an elder for a little while, but about ten years ago I lost faith in the church. We were doing all the right things, we had hundreds of people in worship every Sunday but we never did anything for the community. Everything the church did was so inwardly focused. Debates about the wallpaper, the type of bread for communion, and timing for Sunday services dominated all of our conversations. Whenever I tried to raise a need within the community that the church could meet it was brushed aside as being insignificant. Finally, at a council meeting, I could no longer contain myself. After years of watching this “perfect church” ignore the desperate needs of the people outside the building, I stood up in the front of the leadership and declared, “I think when Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ he really meant to feed his sheep.” I have not been to a church since.”

 

In the sixth chapter of Micah, the prophet relays God’s controversy with his people. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

At that time in Israel’s history, the people had grown weary and bored with their God. They were just going through the motions when it came to worshipping the good God who had been at the center of their very lives for so long.

How could they have become bored with God? He had delivered the people from their oppressors, raised up mighty leaders, sent truthful prophets, and brought all the people to a full awareness of his righteousness. Yet, they had forsaken him. They lived immersed in the love of God, yet were blind to much, if not most, of it.

Micah then describes “real religion” as opposed to the ways to Israelites were behaving: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good. and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah presents the simple essentials of real religion in a verse that has taken its place among the most favored of scripture. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Real religion is predicated on the lived reality of discipleship that changes everything.

God made it known to the Israelites the proper and good response to their Lord. The people are required to practice justice, to seek equality between themselves and others; to love kindness, to maintain a loyal commitment to God and others; and to walk humbly with their God, to live transformed lives conformed to the image of God. Real religion is a journey of faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and life.

So, where are we with God? Have we grown tired and weary of the God we have come to worship? Are we attending church, practicing our faith, and loving others out of obligation or excitement? What do we think the Lord requires of us?

Is our relationship with God determined by our attendance at church, coming to worship at 11am every Sunday, singing a couple hymns, hearing scripture read aloud, and listening to a 15 minute sermon? Are we simply going through the motions of faith, or does our faith shape the way we act outside of this building?

During the time of Micah, God no longer wanted the sacrifice of animals, burnt offerings, and rivers of oil. Instead he wanted what he already showed to be good: justice, kindness, and humility.

And when we read that list of what God does not want, it makes the threefold expectation seem easy. The real demands of God however, are both moral and spiritual, and the proper worship of God is a life obedient to them. Without justice, kindness, and humility, any of our practices in church can wound our faith. Instead of creating worthy habits for life, we appear to be bargaining with God to take something less than he actually wants of us. If our faith can be compartmentalized into one hour a week, if our faith is limited to church worship alone, than we desperately need to hear Micah’s word.

Like the ancient Israelites, we live and die immersed in the love of God. Yet, how often are we blind to much, if not most, of it?

Micah begged the people to exhibit true faith, true worship, and true morality that will come to completion in true behavior. What we believe shapes how we behave. 

However, proper morality is not a substitute for religion. Its not just about “being a good person.” Outward conduct is essential for the life of faith, but it always depends on the inward character that is shaped by the gathering community of faith.

Justice, kindness, and humility might sound easy and comfortable to those who have never tried them, but the overwhelming truth is that these three practices are far more costly than thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or a more contemporary allusion might be that truly practicing justice, kindness, and humility will always be harder than giving numerous possessions away in order to somehow appease God.

If this church takes seriously our commitment to forming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need learn to translate mercy into our regular daily deeds through a close, nurturing, and personal journey of faith with God. The Lord demands our lives, our love, our trust, and our loyalty.

When driving around Staunton, it is nearly impossible to miss the cacophony of churches scratched across the landscape. In my life, I have never lived in a place with so many steeples. In fact, during one of my first weeks here someone told me that Staunton has more churches per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no idea how to confirm whether or not this is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

In my short time here I have created relationships with some of the other clergy in town; I’ve gone out to lunch, initiated a lectionary based breakfast group, and shared numerous cups of coffee. Do you know what the first question is almost every time I meet a different pastor? “How many people do you have in worship?”

This week, while reading over Micah, I realized that getting asked about worship attendance is close to what the Israelites must have felt when someone asked, “how many rams did you sacrifice this week, how many river of oil did you present to God?”

Really? Of all the things that we could possibly talk about, the first question is always about church attendance. I wonder why we aren’t talking about ways that we can practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Why are we all so consumed with the numbers instead of planning ways to serve our community? And I’ll admit that I am certainly guilty of this practice. When I am asked about worship, I proudly respond about the growth of our church and the warm and inviting atmosphere that one encounters when walking through the door. But I have to be reminded too, I have to ask myself, ‘What does the Lord require?’ Does God want us to grow this church and fill it to the brim to the point where we no longer know who we are worshipping with? Or is God calling us to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly? Not that they are mutually exclusive, but until our focus is more on living our faith, rather than filling our building, our building will never be filled.

So, how can we practice justice as individuals and as a church? We can open our eyes to the needs of our community. We can seek out the last, least, and lost, to give them the one true gift worth sharing: love. We can stand up against the small and large injustices that occur everyday, whether its an unfair judgement in the work place, or racist comments, or belittling words between spouses. We can practice justice by living out our faith in the world.

How can we love kindness as individuals and as a church? We can initiate relationships with strangers knowing that God has done the same for us. We can show our love to our families and friends by making the extra phone call to just say “Hi.” We can truly greet one another when we gather in worship, not just the same people we talk with every week, but particularly those who are still strangers to us. We can show our loving kindness but living out our faith in the world.

How can we walk humbly with our God? We can recognize that God is not only concerned with our religious rituals, but calls for us to live out faith beyond these walls. We can admit that we have, and will continue to, fall short of God’s glory. We can find salvation and redemption through our faith in God, and God’s faith in us. We can come forward to the table and receive the bread and wine humbly, knowing that we have done nothing to deserve it. We can walk humbly with our God by living out our faith in the world.

What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Amen.